Northern Sri Lanka
Northern Sri Lanka is by far the least-visited region of the island. Escaping the crowds to the south of the country, it is still “off-the-beaten track” where you might find yourself the only traveller around. It can feel like visiting a different country with a culture all of its own and vast lagoons, mud flats, Tamil script, Hindu temples and Brahman cows. It has had a long, troubled history and for many decades was off-limits to travellers due to civil war. While the conflict has passed, the recovery process is ongoing. With limited infrastructure, it caters for the seasoned traveller who loves ancient culture, wildlife, untouched beaches and exploring undiscovered islands. There is a significant military presence with the occasional checkpoint and some services run by the military. The climate in the north and the east of Sri Lanka is at its best between April and September, coincidentally the rainy season in the south and the west of the island. This richly rewarding destination is the last frontier for an intrepid traveller to Sri Lanka, offering an unforgettable and authentic experience.
Vibrant, bright and colourful Jaffna is the largest northern town. Cycling around Jaffna will lead you to its sights including the impressive Nallur temple, one of the largest and most significant Hindu temples on the island, and the Jaffna Library. One of the finest buildings in Jaffna, known for its elegant neo-Mughal design, the library became a repository of historical documents, newspapers and archival material written on palm leaf manuscripts. A casualty of the war, it was burnt in 1981 but thoughtfully restored and reopened in February 2004. Another notable sight is the Dutch fort, initially built by the Portuguese in 1619 and then re-built and expanded by the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries. Restoration is now underway as the fort was also badly damaged during the civil war with only parts of its outer walls remaining. Travellers can also wander through the colourful Jaffna market, cycle past the iconic clock tower and explore the largely unvisited palace ruins of a Tamil kingdom built around 100 AD. Point Pedro, the northern most point of Sri Lanka houses many pre-Colonial Hindu temples and Portuguese Catholic churches. Hit hard by the 2004 tsunami, it is Jaffna peninsula’s second largest town. Places of interest are the Point Pedro Lighthouse, Munai Beach and the much revered Vallipura temple.
Jaffna can be reached by car along the A9 or train from Colombo by catching the “Yarl Devi” which is a six hour train journey travelling 400km. The train line was re-opened in late 2014 after a closure of 25 years due to the lengthy civil war. The train passes through areas affected by the conflict including the Vanni region, a huge area north of Anuradhapura and the cultural triangle which marks the transition from the Sinhalese to Tamil speaking regions of Sri Lanka. Though most parts are practically deserted, Vanni is making a comeback with people and infrastructure slowly returning to the region. A day spent in Vanni, taking in the relics and remnants of the region’s troubled past, offers a compelling insight into the recent history of Sri Lanka.
Driving away from Jaffna, you will come across a string of islands leading out into the Laccadive Sea. The islands are linked by a series of ramshackle causeways, with tiny villages, beautiful lagoons, deserted houses and small shrines. With little infrastructure, it is an adventurous journey and is Sri Lanka at its most remote, with very few travellers venturing out here. During the war many Tamil families fled, never to return, leaving their homes to crumble; many of which are still visible throughout the area. One of the islands, Nainatheevu, is an important place of pilgrimage for both Hindus and Buddhists. The former visit the Naga Pooshani Amman temple, dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi, a consort of Shiva and said to help women conceive. Neduntheevu (Delft) is the largest island in the Palk Strait and is Sri Lanka’s furthest inhabited point. The island has a small population but a rich history. It is home to wild ponies and a variety of small archaeological and cultural sites including a Dutch fort. Although inhabited, it has the feel of a deserted island with turquoise shallow waters and white sand beaches.
Lying to the north-west of Sri Lanka, Mannar Island with its collection of curiously chunky baobab trees, is separated from the mainland by a recently rebuilt 3km long causeway. The island itself has a handful of interesting features including the mysterious Adam’s Bridge – a series of small shoals beginning off the tip of Mannar Island and stretching across the Palk Strait to India. Geological evidence suggests that the shoals once formed a 30km long manmade bridge between Sri Lanka and the south-east coast of Tamil Nadu, India. Other points of interest in the area are Thantirimalai, an ancient village and temple complex; Mannar and Arippu forts; Doric House; Talaimannar port and lighthouse; and most notably, the Thiruketheeswaram temple. It is one of the five Eswaram-Sivan temples in Sri Lanka, which evolved into administrative and religious centres during the classical period. Destroyed and looted by the Portuguese, these five temples remain points of pilgrimage for Hindus internationally. Mannar Island is also known for its birdlife, and is an enchanting and other-worldly destination.
Wilpattu National Park
Closed during the civil war, Wilpattu National Park is the country’s largest national park where leopards, sloths, water buffalos, elephants, crocodiles, sambar, beautiful birdlife and spotted deer roam, but without being joined by the crowds present in some of the country’s southern parks.
On Sri Lanka’s north-east coast, Trincomalee known as ‘Trinco’ to the locals, has historically been of great economic importance due to its large natural deep-water harbour, resulting in the city changing hands numerous times throughout history. Evidence of former Portuguese, Dutch and British rule can be seen in the town and surrounding areas resulting in a charming pastiche of sleepy backstreets, colonial villas, mosques, churches and temples. Trinco is also home to the Thirukoneswaram temple, another one of the five Eswaram-Sivan temples in Sri Lanka. Other points of interest are Fort Frederick, a 17th century Portuguese-built city bastion; China Bay, a naval base since time immemorial (now a museum); and Kanniya hot water springs, with seven shallow wells in a square shape where the temperature varies from one well to another. The beautiful white sandy beaches and aquamarine waters that are found to the north of the town also make this one of the country’s best places for swimming, wind surfing, scuba diving, fishing and whale watching. In more recent times the region has suffered more than its fair share, from being close to the front line during the civil war to the 2004 Asian Tsunami that destroyed many buildings and brought a devastating death toll.
Batticaloa, a coastal town which lies away from the main tourist trail in the east of Sri Lanka, provides an insight into the authentic Sri Lankan lifestyle. The main industries here are fishing and handloom weaving. Famous for its scenic bay with clear, shallow waters in which you can wade 50m out to sea, Batticaloa is protected by a reef that runs across the bay, making it one of the safest and calmest stretches of coastline in the east. The reef is home to coral formations and fish which can be seen while snorkelling. Nearby is the beautiful Passikudah beach and situated 110km from Batticaloa is the Minneriya National Park, famed for its wild elephant population.
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